In a victory for American workers, the Supreme Court last week upheld a $5.8 million judgment against Tyson Foods in a pay dispute with more than 3,000 workers at a pork-processing plant in Iowa. You can read the opinion in Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo here.
The justices voted 6-2 on to reject new limits Tyson asked them to impose on the ability of workers to band together to challenge pay and workplace issues. The case revolved around the question of whether the workers could bring a class action case. Tyson argued that since each employee spent a different amount of time putting an gear and removing it, they shouldn't be able to sue as a group using "representative evidence" to prove up their case. The court rejected that argument.
“In many cases,” according to the Court majority opinion, “a representative sample is ‘the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data'” to prove that the company being sued was legally at fault. The opinion went on to provide some guidance to when such evidence would be allowed in such cases.
In this case, the Court was more content to allow such evidence because Tyson Foods had not obeyed its legal duty to keep records on how much each worker had worked as overtime. Without such records, the employees had to marshal other evidence, and the sample was the best proof available to them.
The case is notable because it represents at least a small opening in the legal wall against group actions that the Supreme Court has been steadily building over the last several years.